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Letting Things Escalate for the Better

Updated: May 26, 2022

As project managers with some experience, we’ve all likely encountered a situation where something detrimental was happening on your project that you felt you had no control of. This issue continually gains heat and momentum and you as the project manager gain more sleepless nights thinking about it. So what do you do when you have an immovable object that your project is steering towards that you simply cannot steer out of the way no matter what you try? You let it collide.

Why Would You Do This?

Let me tell you about an experience I had on a project where there were a lot of levers being pulled to push the project in a direction it was not ready for. I had taken over a failing project (I was the fourth project manager) where the contract was not clear – paraphrasing, our contract guaranteed that “something” would be built. We had a customer whose expectations were way out of line with what ours were in terms of what was being delivered. We had an offshore team who was not delivering the quality we expected (however with minimal requirements so hard to blame them). Then to top it off we had a Services Director who was under pressure to invoice, no matter the quality of delivery. These conditions basically are a death sentence for any project.

How Does it Collide?

Working 16 hours a day and not sleeping at night trying to get this project back on track, I finally came to the realization that this project may be doomed. Finally, the day came when we were forced to do a demonstration of our “product” in order to invoice the customer. Knowing the product was nowhere near ready for demonstration, my team was understandably concerned (as was I). So we demonstrated and within 10 minutes of the meeting starting, our project sponsor (embarrassed) sent all of her colleagues out of the room and proceeded to chastise myself and my team for such a poor showing. Taking it on the chin, our team regrouped and talked about what we do next. At that point it didn’t matter – our Titanic of a project had collided with the iceberg.

The Escalation and Aftermath

Immediately after myself and my team got off the phone with the project sponsor, her next call was to our CEO to share her thoughts on the lack of a product that we had shown her. Now normally this would be a less than comfortable situation however it proved to be a good thing for the project. Of course, I was called in to meet with the CEO to share my thoughts on where we were with the project and why the demonstration had gone awry. I shared my candid thoughts, saying the product was not ready because we have very loose requirements that are unable to be tightened combined with other pressures to invoice based on a successful demonstration. Laying out the facts as I did, I was granted the opportunity to re-baseline the entire project from requirements to schedule, allowing myself and my project team the creative freedom to build something that we would be proud of.

Project managers sometimes see escalations as a bad thing. This is not the case – project sponsorship/executives are the ones ultimately accountable for the success or failure of a project and are the ones who need to be providing the input and contributing to decision making when things are not going as planned. Project managers sometimes feel the entire weight of that burden on their shoulders but it’s important to remember that the job of the project manager is not to make those heavy decisions but to communicate the facts clearly to those empowered to make such decisions. Keep your executives informed and engaged and you will keep from having to “ram the iceberg”.


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